Firstly, we would like to pay tribute to a dear friend, colleague, founding member and former treasurer of he Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE), Mahiyudin Abdul Rahman, who passed away on Aug 12. Mahiyudin was a committed and caring person who tirelessly volunteered his time and energy to undertake PAGE’s activities. Constant of faith and generous in heart, with an ever-cheerful and gregarious personality, Din, as he was fondly referred to, was an unfailing source of encouragement with his solid reliability and background support. He will be greatly missed by all of us at PAGE.
Semoga Allah swt kurniakan rahmat dan hidayah di atas pemergian Allahyarham ke rahmatullah.
Recently, PAGE Malaysia was again given the honour of contributing to a three-day-and-two-night workshop by the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (Mosti) to structure the National STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) Action Plan.
Other invitees included representatives from the Academy of Sciences Malaysia (ASM); the ministries of education, higher education; and international trade and industry; the Economic Planning Unit; TalentCorp; National Council of Professors; and Malaysia Digital Economy Corp. Numerous ideas were bandied about and active participation among the attendees was evidently the norm.
The CEO of ASM set the scene by walking us through the National STEM Agenda. Developed nations have cast in stone a vision for STEM 2050 and so should we. Several revelations transpired in the course of the workshop. While we agonise over not achieving the target of 60:40 in science over arts, it is no different globally among leading developed nations. In Finland, which has topped the Pisa (Programme for International Student Assessment) and TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study) rankings every time, increasingly fewer youths choose to study these. The US Labor Department too had observed that in the past decade, “considerable concern regarding a shortage of STEM workers to meet the demands of the labour market” has caused employers to hire talented immigrants. And closer to home, Singapore’s prime minister had lamented that “it has become more challenging to attract students and graduates to study and work in the STEM sectors”.
At secondary school level on our own turf, students in the science stream still hover at a mere 27%. But if technical and vocational education and training, or TVET, is included, it balloons to 47%, which is encouraging. To raise this figure, interest in science needs to be boosted.
By 2018, all science laboratories will be in tip-top condition, according to the proposed plan. In 2019, fourth-formers will be able to begin proper practical experiments in preparation for the following year’s SPM and so on and so forth. A total of 28,000 secondary school STEM teachers will be trained too. As a catalyst, the York STEM Centre in England has offered its resources at no expense to train 1,000 teachers every year, in English.
Why is STEM so important? It is STEM that will provide the transformation from the traditional economy to the new economy, resource-focused to knowledge-intensive, labour-intensive to highly-skilled talent, control to collaboration, vertical to horizontal trust orientation, mass production to customisation, proximity-focused to location-insignificant, rigid to flexible; capitalist to profit-sharing mode, and entrepreneur to science-preneur or techno-preneur.
The ability to learn, unlearn, re-learn, co-learn and co-create will be the criteria of the talent of the future. Jobs will turn into roles while job seekers become job creators. Today’s jobs include dieticians/nutritionists, digital marketeers, shale gas engineers, IT security consultants, digital image consultants. The roles of the future may require myotherapists (those who provide a form of physical therapy used to treat or prevent soft tissue pain and restricted joint movement), virtual teachers, architectural visualisers, avatar developers, ubiquitous computing developers, asteroid miners, exobiologists, sustainability consultants, alternative energy developers and clinical cytogeneticists, to name a few.
According to the US Department of Commerce Economics and Statistics Administration, employment in STEM occupations has grown much faster than non-STEM ones over the past decade — 24.4% compared with just 4%. STEM occupations are projected to grow 8.9% from 2014 to 2024 compared with 6.4% for non-STEM.
We should follow suit. STEM growth areas that have been identified by the government are digital technology (boosted by Alibaba.com), biotechnology (a renewed attempt at biopharming), green technology (to enjoy a clean environment and a better quality of life), nanotechnology (begin with a degree in chemistry) and neurotechnology/neuroscience.
Parents have to be convinced that science-based jobs exist and pay better. As it is, science-related disciplines cost more to fund at university and hence, we expect a higher return on investment. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics says STEM workers commanded 29% more in wages than non-STEM workers in 2015, while the wage premium has increased by 26%. So unless and until salaries are re-remunerated to take into account the effort and costs involved in not just producing science graduates but financially sustaining them until post-graduate level, then there will be little progress, if at all.
Scientist extraordinaire Prof Datuk Dr Halimaton Hamdan was also at the Mosti workshop. While we have been pre-occupied with quality, the nanotechnologist conversely spoke of the critical mass that was vital to move the national STEM agenda forward. Currently, a mere 0.3% of the young workforce is in STEM-related sectors. The nation requires a whopping 30% by 2050 to become self-sufficient, subsistent and efficient. From merely being consumers, we will become pro-sumers — both producing and consuming.
So what do parents do in the meantime? Science graduates have to be taken into the fold, nurtured and guided, if the government is serious about STEM. Malaysians enter prestigious universities abroad, excel in their chosen field, but get let down when they come home: there are no jobs for them, or only poorly paid ones, or worse, they are forced to opt out of science because only accounting firms are employing.
Where are the science jobs? The government has to make sacrifices or face an even greater brain drain.
The proposed National STEM Action Plan from the workshop has been presented to the prime minister for consideration ahead of the budget. We hope that there will be political will, complemented by a substantial budget — important elements required to create the critical mass to vigorously move forward the science agenda — to ensure its smooth implementation.
Happy 60th Merdeka Day to all readers and may science be encultured into our daily lives.
Datin Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim is the chairman of Parent Action Group for Education Malaysia, which is an educational lobby group that serves as a channel between concerned parents, the Ministry of Education and other educational stakeholders